Popular Science Monthly/Volume 10/April 1877/The Plant-Eaters of North America
|THE PLANT-EATERS OF NORTH AMERICA.|
THERE may, perhaps, be a question in the minds of some, or even of many, as to what animals are absolutely the most useful to man; but there can be no question that those which furnish him with milk and flesh for food, wool and leather for clothing, and which bear his burdens and draw his loads, have very high claims to this rank. The deer, the antelopes, the sheep and goats, and the oxen, are indeed very intimately connected with our comforts, and even with our luxuries. And the North American representatives of these useful animals deserve our careful attention and consideration; for they are more intimately connected with our welfare as a nation than we yet fully appreciate or even understand. As all of our domestic sheep and cattle have come from wild species, so in the future we are to draw from the same sources some of the most valuable grazing animals that are to stock the pastures and farmyards of the great farming-regions of this vast country. And we have several kinds of these animals now wild on the plains and in the forests that ought to be added to our domestic flocks and herds; and intelligent legislation should at once be inaugurated to secure this result, which is intimately connected with the welfare of every person-on this continent.
Of deer there are in North America perhaps eight species: the black-tailed deer of the Pacific coast; the mule-deer, and the white-tailed deer, of the Upper Missouri region and westward; the common deer of the United States east of the Missouri; the wapiti of the northern and northwestern portions of the United States; one or two species of reindeer; and the moose of the northern portion of the continent.
The moose (Alce Americanus, Fig. 1) is the largest member of the deer family, equaling a good-sized horse in bulk, and having very long legs; and the male has very long and broad antlers, which in some instances weigh as much as seventy pounds or more. Its muzzle is exceedingly large and long, its ears long and hairy, its neck short and thick, and the latter and the shoulders covered by a mane, and the throat with long hair. The general color is a grayish brown, and the hair is very coarse and brittle. In its movements the moose appears quite awkward, but it is able to make very great speed, striding along without apparent effort over fallen trees, fences, and other obstructions, which would be serious obstacles in the way of most, if not all, of our domestic animals. The moose is still common in the unsettled parts of Maine and Northern New York, and thence northward toward the frozen regions. In the winter it keeps mainly on the wooded hill-sides; and at this time many of them stay in what the hunters term "yards." These are large tracts of ground over which the snow has been trodden hard by the moose, the lighter and untrodden snow forming a wall around the yard. There are generally in each of these yards one male and one female, and one or two fawns. They feed upon the bushes and the saplings that may be growing in the yard, and even peel off and eat all the bark from the hard-wood trees up as high as they can reach. They are especially fond of the birch, the moose-wood, and the poplar.
In the summer the moose frequents lakes and rivers. Here, by going into the water, it escapes the attacks of the troublesome flies, and avoids injuring its antlers, which at this time are growing, and are very tender.
The antlers are the most curious things, perhaps, in the structure of these animals. As already stated, they are found only on the males. They are shed annually, in the month of December; in some cases, however, they are carried till the following March. The first year the antlers are merely short knobs; the second year they are four or five inches long, with a single point; the third year about nine inches long; the fourth year they become broad with a brow-antler and several points, and about the fifth year they reach their maximum size. It is a matter of wonder that the enormous horns of these animals grow in about two months! They begin to appear about the latter part of March, or early in April, and in June or July they are full-grown for the season. While growing, they are invested with a skin which is covered with a sort of velvet-like pile; and this skin is nourished by a system of blood-vessels. When they have attained their full growth for the season, the skin peels off, and leaves the antlers at first perfectly white, but exposure soon turns them brown.
The female produces her young in May; at the first birth there is only one fawn, but afterward two, and it is believed by the hunters that these twins are always one male and one female. The moose is hunted at the yards, and also pursued with dogs until it is fatigued and overtaken; and it is also shot on the lake-shores and river-margins, in the early autumn, by moonlight. The flesh of the moose, though rather coarse, is highly prized as food by many, and is a very good substitute for beef. The nose and the tongue are regarded as great delicacies. The marrow from the shank-bones is used by the hunters to spread upon their bread and eaten as butter.
It may be stated here that our moose is so nearly like the great elk of the northern part of Europe, that there is still perhaps a question whether the two are of one species. A fossil elk has been found in the marl beneath the peat-bogs of Ireland, which is of an entirely different species from any now living. This fossil elk was ten feet high to the top of the horns, whose tips are ten feet apart!
People generally think of the reindeer only as an inhabitant of the cold portions of Europe. But North America has at least one species of reindeer, although it is more generally called caribou. The woodland caribou, or reindeer (Rangifer caribou), of New Brunswick, Maine, and westward to Lake Superior, is thought by some to be identical with the reindeer of Lapland. The barren-ground caribou, or reindeer (R. Groenlandicus), is found in the arctic regions beyond the limits of trees, and may be only a variety of the former.
Unlike the other deer, the reindeer have the horns present on both sexes. The horns are palmated only at the tip, but, like those of all other deer, are shed and renewed periodically. The history of the reindeer of Lapland is well known, and from that history we learn how useful our own species may yet be made. As is well known, the Laplanders have large herds of these animals, and use them for beasts of burden and for draught, their milk and flesh for food, their skins for clothing and for covering their sledges. The reindeer is a very hardy animal, and draws the sledge of its owner with great speed. In one of the palaces in Sweden there is a picture of one of these animals, which is preserved with great care, from the fact that the animal from which it was painted drew the sledge of an officer, with important dispatches, the distance of eight hundred miles in forty-eight hours!
The caribou or American reindeer (Fig. 2) is considerably larger than the common deer, now so often seen in our parks. Its color is deep brown in summer and grayish in winter. In the winter this animal stays in the swamps, much of the time, and feeds mainly on the mosses and lichens that hang from the trees and bushes, but in early spring it retires to the hill-sides and feeds upon the buds and twigs. Like its European relation, it is very fleet of foot, trotting, or galloping, or leaping, with the greatest ease; and it is also capable of great endurance. For more than a week hunters have followed a caribou before they could get near enough to shoot it. When attacked by dogs it stands at bay, and then falls an easy victim to the hunters. In the regions far to the north, where the caribou is plentiful, these animals move in herds from ten to a hundred or more. When in good condition the male caribou has a layer of fat on the back and rump two or three inches in thickness. The flesh is an excellent article of food, being tender and of good flavor. The skin when properly
dressed forms one of the best articles for clothing to be worn in the cold regions. A suit made of the dressed skins of the caribou is so warm that it is said that the person wearing one of these suits and also provided with a blanket of the same material, may bivouac on the snow not only with safety but with comfort even in the intense cold of an arctic winter's night.
The common deer of Eastern North America, generally known as the Virginia deer (Cervus Virginianus, Fig. 3), is one of the most graceful and one of the most beautiful of all the deer family. It is now so common in parks that almost every one is familiar with it as it appears in this state of semi-domestication. But no one gets the best idea of this splendid animal who does not see it as it appears in the wild state, either in the forest or on the plains. Here when startled it bounds away with the most incredible velocity, and he who would bring it down must have a quick hand and steady nerve. This deer attains a weight of about two hundred pounds. The color is light brown in summer and grayish in winter, the under part of the throat and tail being always white. The food of this animal is exceedingly various. The tender grasses constitute its principal food in summer, except in those regions, as in many parts of the South, where the deer can gain access to the fields of young wheat, oats, or other grain. In the early autumn it adds berries of various sorts to its bill of fare, and later still nuts and acorns; and in winter it feeds upon almost all kinds of buds and tender twigs, as well as upon various kinds of the more hardy herbs. The males are in excellent condition from August to November, and the females from November to January. The antlers are fully grown in July or August, and remain till the next January, when they are shed. The males engage in severe
contests with one another, and in some of these contests they get their horns or antlers interlocked, so that they cannot separate them, and the combatants at length perish from starvation and exhaustion. In some cases the antlers are interlocked so firmly that even a strong man cannot separate them, and Audubon mentions one case where three pairs of antlers were thus united. The flesh of this deer, as is well known, is tender and juicy, and has an excellent flavor. This fact, and the love of the excitement of the chase, have caused this animal to be extensively hunted. At the same time our forests have been disappearing, thus affording them less protection, so that the numbers of the common deer are far less than twenty-five years ago. It will require rigid legislation to keep these animals from entirely disappearing from many parts of our country where a deer-hunt is still possible.
Next to the moose, the wapiti or American elk (Cervus Canadensis) is the largest deer in North America. It is nearly as large as a horse, and its horns are the most magnificent to be found in the whole deer family, being five or six feet long and much branched. In some cases antlers of this species have been secured which were so long that when standing on their tips a man could walk upright through the arch thus formed. Although this deer still lingers in the mountainous regions of Pennsylvania, and perhaps in a few other places in the eastern part of our country, it is confined mainly to the western and northwestern portions of North America, and south of the fifty-seventh parallel of latitude. In some cases it is found in large herds,
all the members of which follow one of the males which is their leader, and whose movements they more or less closely imitate. The color of the wapiti is grayish in winter, and chestnut-red in summer. This deer is the analogue of the stag or red deer (C. elephas) of Europe, and was formerly regarded as identical with the latter; but it is a very much larger animal than its European relation, and is in every way a distinct species.
The antelopes differ from all the deer in having their horns permanent and hollow, and, like a sheath, covering a conical process of the frontal bone. In this respect the antelopes are like sheep, goats, and oxen. The antelopes have the horns round, curved, ringed, or wrinkled, and always black. There are many species of antelopes, no less than ninety having been described. Of these, two are found in North America, two in Europe, and all the rest in Asia and Africa.
Our most interesting species of antelope is the prong-horn (Antilocapra Americana, Fig. 5) of the western portions of North America. It is about the size of the Virginia deer, and is covered with coarse, thick hair. Its color above is yellowish-brown; the rump and under parts white; the horns, hoofs, and the naked part of the nose, black. The white hair covering the rump is very long, and seems to be under the perfect control of the animal, and is at once made to stand erect when he is in the least excited; and it is wonderful to see this patch of hair rise and fall with his varying emotions. About half-way up the horns of the adult there is a branch or prong, and from this fact the animal gets its popular name.
The prong-horn is often seen alone, more frequently perhaps there are several together, and in some cases herds of one or two hundred
are seen. It is not an uncommon thing for the traveler on the Pacific Railway to see several of these beautiful animals while he is crossing the Plains. One has been seen to run along for a mile or two parallel with the moving train, as if determined to keep up with it. Its speed is very great, and is only equaled by that of the fleetest of the deer; and hence it is almost useless to pursue it. It is not, however, difficult to secure these animals. They have great curiosity in regard to any objects which they are not accustomed to. The hunters well know this fact, and turn it to their own advantage. When the experienced hunter sees a prong-horn, or a herd of them, he does not pursue them, but keeps his ground, or little by little advances very slowly. The antelope soon advances a little toward him. The hunter waves his handkerchief, or a rag; the animal approaches still nearer and nearer; and in this manner he is soon within easy range of the hunter's rifle. It is stated that the Indians have the habit of lying flat upon their backs, and kicking up their heels with a rag or something fastened to them; and that by this process they entice the prong-horn to within such a distance that they kill it with their bow and arrow. The flesh of the prong-horn in autumn, when it is in the best condition, is good food, especially if the animal be young.
In May and June the prong-horn brings forth two fawns, which are of a dun-color, and not spotted like the fawns of the deer. For these the mother displays great affection, and defends them with vigor against the attacks of enemies. She is sometimes able to beat off even the wolf; but not always, and hence many of these little creatures are annually destroyed by this hungry animal. The prong-horn, when taken young, is easily tamed. The writer has seen a tame one. It was thoroughly domesticated, and, whatever its wanderings during the day, it returned to the farm-house at night. It allowed itself to be freely handled, even by strangers. It followed the children as they went to school, and then returned to its home again, alone; all showing how easily it can be added to the stock of domestic animals of the farm.
Our other species of antelope looks so much like a goat that it has been named the mountain-goat (Aplocerus montanus, Fig. 6). It is about the size of the domestic sheep, and has small, round, slightly
recurved horns, which are ringed at the base, and which are jet-black in color, and polished, and are much like those of the chamois; the body is covered with long, white hair, and there is a long pendent tuft of hair under the chin. This antelope lives on the rugged portions of the Rocky Mountains, and seldom descends into the plains. It leaps from crag to crag, much after the manner of the chamois of the Alps, and in many portions of the mountains is secured with great difficulty. The flesh of this species is rather dry, and is not so highly prized as that of the other animals described in this article. It may be added here that the hair, or covering of the body, is of two kinds, the one being long and straight, and the other, which forms a thick, close under-coat, being a sort of fine silk-like wool.
Of sheep there is only one wild species in North America, the Rocky-Mountain sheep, or big-horn (Ovis montana, Fig. 7). This animal is of a much larger size than the ordinary domestic sheep, and its horns are of enormous size. A large animal of this species weighs about three hundred pounds. In Siberia there is a wild-sheep, called the argali, which Cuvier believed to be the same as our big-horn. It is certainly very remarkable that there should be only one species
of wild-sheep on this continent, and that that one should be confined to our highest system of mountains. The inquiring mind naturally asks, "Whence has this sheep come?" But this question is not easily answered. It may, however, be stated here that Cuvier was inclined to believe that it came from Siberia, and crossed Behring's Straits on the ice.
The Rocky-Mountain sheep lives in flocks, and is exceedingly wild, especially in regions that have been frequented by the hunters; and he who would get a shot at one of these animals has often to make wide détours, and always to proceed with the greatest caution. The flesh of this animal is very highly prized, being regarded by some as even better than venison, or ordinary mutton. The hunters tell remarkable stories of the big-horn. They assert that this animal will leap sometimes from high precipices, head foremost, and, striking upon the tips of its enormous horns, bound away on its course as if nothing had happened!
Characteristics belonging to different kinds of animals are sometimes combined in one and the same animal. The musk-ox (Fig. 8) furnishes us with an example of this sort. This animal is in some respects so much like a sheep, and in others so much like an ox, that naturalists have named its genus Ovibos, the first part of the word meaning sheep, and the latter part meaning ox. The musk-ox (Ovibos moschatus) inhabits the barren ground of North America, and is about the size of a two-years-old heifer. Its horns are close together on the top of the head, whence they curve outward, down-ward, and thence upward. The body is covered with long pendent hair, and the color is brownish-black. This hair or wool might be made very serviceable in the manufacture of useful fabrics, if it could be obtained in sufficient quantity. The musk-ox lives mostly in herds of a score or more, and, contrary to what we would naturally suppose, it runs with great speed, and climbs rocky hills with facility. The flesh of the young animals is very good, but that of the older ones is too strongly impregnated with musk to be palatable to white men, although the Indians and Esquimaux may not seriously object to it.
It is much to be regretted that the musk-ox is so rarely preserved in our museums. It is exceeding difficult to secure a specimen, as almost every one which is killed by the natives is immediately devoured by them. The food of this animal consists of grasses in the summer. and lichens in the winter, the latter being obtained by scraping the snow from the ground. On this food they keep in remarkably good condition. It may be added here that only one species of musk-ox is now living; although their fossil remains show us that in the past there have been other species of this animal, and in other parts of the world than America.
It is interesting to see how the same idea under specifically different forms is represented in the animal kingdom in the different portions of the earth. Take the idea which finds its expression in the ox, for example. In the southern part of Africa we find the ox in the form of the Cape buffalo, a very ferocious animal, with horns so wide that they nearly cover the forehead; in India, the arni, whose enormous horns are ten feet apart from tip to tip; in the forests of Lithuania and of the Caucasus, the aurochs, an ox related more or less closely to our wild species; in Tartary, the grunting cow or yak, which is smaller than any of the preceding, and which has a long mane upon the hack, whose tail much resembles that of a horse, and whose grunting is similar to that of a hog. And in North America we find the American buffalo (Bos Americanus, Fig. 9).
the largest quadruped on this continent. This animal once inhabited nearly all of North America, except the cold regions of the north; but it is now confined mainly to the great Western plains, where, notwithstanding the immense havoc made among their numbers, both by Indians and white men, they still exist in numbers that almost defy computation, in some places covering the plains in every direction as far as the eye can reach. The buffalo is as large as a good-sized domestic ox, and has a large head which is carried close to the ground, a broad forehead, a broad, full chest, a large hump between the shoulders, narrow loins, and rather slender legs. The horns are set far apart, are large at the base, and taper suddenly to a sharp point. The buffalo is covered with a thick coat of hair, that upon the head, neck, and shoulders, being very long and shaggy. The horns and hoofs are black. Perhaps there is no grander sight to be witnessed among the larger animals than to see one of the immense herds of these animals, when under good headway, sweep by—if only the observer has a safe standing-place.
When the buffalo is moving rapidly, it progresses by an awkward canter or gallop, and it requires a good horse and an expert rider to keep up with it. The hunting of the buffalo is one of the most exciting and at times one of the most dangerous sports, if such it may be called, in which the visitor to the great Western plains can engage. Unless shot through the heart or some other vital part, this animal is not easily brought down. When the animal is only wounded it becomes very furious, and, if its pursuer be on foot, it at once attacks him, and the hunter has all he can do to save himself from destruction. Nor is he always safe even if he be mounted, unless he can manage to keep out of the way of the infuriated animal, for he ferociously attacks both horse and rider.
Buffaloes wander much from one region to another in search of the best pasturage, and of water, salt, or saline springs. In the winter they move southward, and in spring return again to the north. Their deep and well-trodden paths traverse the plains for hundreds of miles. Vast numbers are destroyed during their spring and autumnal migrations. Many perish from starvation; those that get weak and are left behind, are harassed and at length devoured by wolves. Sometimes the vast herds attempt to cross the rivers upon the ice, and, when they are crowded together, the ice gives way and they perish in the cold waters.
The male buffaloes have terrible combats. The young are born in April and May, and there is generally only one at a birth. The young are in constant danger from the wolves.
The buffalo is easily domesticated, and should be added to our stock of domestic cattle. The flesh of the wild ones is extensively used for food, and is regarded with much favor; and we already know enough to convince us that the flavor of their flesh would be improved when they are fully under the dominion of man. Experiments show that the males make excellent oxen, and that they are stronger and swifter of foot than the ordinary oxen; and, when we consider that it takes the milk of two domestic cows to properly nourish one buffalo-calf, we may safely conclude that the females will make excellent domestic cows.
The buffalo was once common over most of North America west of the Hudson River. In the Carolinas they were found even on the seaboard. But, like the red man, they have fled westward, before the advance of civilization, and are still fleeing. Their natural feeding-grounds become cultivated fields. Enemies are constantly on their track. Man hunts them for their valuable skin and for their flesh. Vast numbers are killed yearly that civilized man may feed upon their tongues. Wolves and bears lurk in ambush to snatch away the young, and more openly to wage a constant warfare against the sick and disabled members of the herd. So that, notwithstanding their vast numbers, the day is not far distant when the buffalo will be as rare a sight on the Plains as the wapiti and the moose are now in our Northern forests.